Hollywood movies have long had an outsize impact on the rest of the world. Now a Hollywood scandal is as well.
What began as an exposé of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein has snowballed into a global cause célèbre, one that’s roiling not just the entertainment industry but also the realms of politics, business and education far beyond American shores. Senior officials in Britain have been forced to quit amid harassment allegations. Members of the European Parliament share their #MeToo stories. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, says his country is “sick with sexism” and has vowed to fight discrimination and violence against women. “We must act before it’s too late,” Macron declared.
Corporate boardrooms, film festivals, college campuses, talk shows and online forums are abuzz with stories from people, mostly women, who are newly emboldened to speak out about their experiences of intimidation and assault. True, the newfound openness isn’t spread evenly across the globe. In many regions — parts of Asia, for example — such topics are still taboo or swept under the rug. But even in some socially conservative areas like the Middle East, the Weinstein scandal has triggered awareness and demand for reform with the force and speed of a dam burst.
Nowhere has the atmosphere been more electrified than in Europe — particularly Britain and France. Both countries once garlanded Weinstein with national honors.
“This is about a culture change,” says Kate Kinninmont, head of the London-based advocacy group Women in Film and Television. “Harvey Weinstein has done us all a favor of being so horrific and repulsive that nobody wants to be in that corner.”
Weinstein has been kicked out of BAFTA, and some British lawmakers are seeking to rescind a title bestowed on him by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to the arts. Scotland Yard is investigating a dozen complaints against him by eight women, for alleged assaults dating as far back as the 1980s. The Yard is also investigating sexual assault allegations brought by two men against Kevin Spacey.
After the Weinstein scandal broke, Kinninmont’s organization heard from more than 100 individuals in response to an appeal for people to share tales of mistreatment in the workplace. Complaints of misconduct have also spiked at the BBC, the world’s foremost public broadcaster. The Beeb recently announced that it was yanking a much-anticipated show from its Christmas lineup because of rape allegations against one of the stars. “It’s gone in the bin, and the only way it’s ever going to come out … is if you’ve proven [his] innocence,” says Edel Ryan of JLT Specialty, an insurance brokerage with expertise in media and entertainment.
As in Hollywood, there’s a widespread sense in Britain that the current reckoning is long overdue, as are clear codes of conduct setting out the standards of decent, professional behavior — and the penalty for breaching them. Groups such as the British Film Institute, BAFTA and the British directors’ guild are collaborating on industry-wide guidelines for dealing with harassment and bullying. “It’s not rocket science. Some of it should be quite obvious, but it just needs to be spelled out, and everybody has to take responsibility,” Kinninmont says. “No more gray areas.”
“It’s not rocket science. Some of it should be quite obvious, but it just needs to be spelled out, and everybody has to take responsibility. No more gray areas.”
For all the horror stories, the British entertainment industry in some ways provides a useful counterpoint to Hollywood. No cases of suspected serial abusers of women on the scale of a Weinstein or a James Toback have surfaced in the past few months. While a number of factors might help explain that — and new accusations may yet emerge — it’s worth noting that many of the top executive suites, especially in TV, are occupied by women. “The media industry in the U.K. for sure is very heavily female,” says Ryan. “Perhaps that has made a difference.”
In France, the hope is that the Weinstein scandal has finally tipped the scales in a society where “Vive la différence” has long been a smokescreen for chauvinistic, disrespectful behavior. Six years ago, sexual harassment catapulted into the spotlight when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of France’s most prominent politicians, was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel employee in New York. But as happened in the U.S. with the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy, an initial outcry eventually died down, and little changed.
Activists are confident that won’t happen this time in an era of social media and instant word of mouth, through campaigns such as #BalanceTonPorc (OutYourPig). Reports of sexual assault and harassment in France shot up by 30% in October compared with the same period last year, leading Macron to proclaim at the presidential palace on Nov. 25: “France can no longer be one of these countries where women are afraid.” Hours later, thousands of women took to the streets of Paris to protest against sexual violence.
Political rhetoric is important. In the entertainment industry, though, money talks loudest — which is why the Swedish Film Institute is making the funds it gives filmmakers contingent on their understanding of gender equality and respect in the workplace. The institute doles out $38 million a year to various projects; starting in 2018, applicants will have to produce a “green card” showing they’ve participated in a daylong seminar on diversity, harassment and proper professional conduct.
The program has been in the works for a couple of years, and was initially criticized by some people as unnecessary. “They said, ‘You shouldn’t do that moralizing thing. We can take care of ourselves,’” says Anna Serner, head of the institute. “But now after #MeToo, we’re getting tremendous support.”
Nearly 600 Swedish actresses, including Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, recently signed an open letter condemning rampant sexual abuse in the entertainment world. As in other countries, the campaign to draw a bead on harassment has extended far beyond show business: Swedish lawyers, doctors and other professionals have their own hashtags for victims wishing to come forward.
For Kinninmont, the urgent national conversation Britain is now having on sexual harassment encourages her to dream of the day that her job at Women in Film and TV becomes obsolete. And that’s thanks to the galvanizing effect of a scandal with its roots in Hollywood, half a world away. “There’s no turning back,” Kinninmont says. “Every single industry organization is willing to clean up what’s going on. It’s truly brilliant.”